BEST OF FRIENDS
Larry Carlton discovered a special guitar to suit all purposes and that 1968 Gibson ES-335 helped the American backing musician develop a distinctive style that has served him well for many years
Some love affairs really are forever. Just ask Larry Carlton, the American guitarist whose distinctive tone has graced albums by everyone from Steely Dan to Joni Mitchell and Michael Jackson.
The guitar he will be playing on his Australian tour is the same one that’s been with him through thick and thin on a career that stretches back to the ’60s.
While many famed guitarists assemble an arsenal of guitars for every mood and occasion, Carlton has been content with his 1968 Gibson ES-335, which is the guitar he estimates he has used on 90 per cent of his recordings.
“In late ’69 I started getting calls to play recording sessions in Los Angeles,’’ Carlton explains. “At that time we would never know what style of music the session would be. Most of us guitar players would carry a Telecaster for country music, a Les Paul if we wanted something more Clapton-ish, something else for jazz. I really got tired of schlepping all those guitars around.’’
He remembers clearly going into Mr Bs For Music store in Palos Verdes in Los Angeles and seeing three of the 335s on the wall. The one he chose has been with him ever since.
“In my hands that guitar was versatile like I am versatile. I could cover a lot of territory without having to change guitars so it was a practical decision.’’
Versatile and tasteful are the two adjectives that best describe Carlton’s style. He was never one for flashy shows of technique, but his melodic style, often with distinctive use of a volume pedal, came to play a crucial part on albums like Steely Dan’s The Royal Scam and Aja. Rolling Stone rated his solo on Dan’s Kid Charlemagne as one of the greatest rock solos ever.
Carlton says his versatility was a product of the music he heard growing up.
“I was born in 1948 and started playing in ’56, so I got to hear the beginning of rock’n’roll music, the beginning of R&B, The Beatles, I got involved with jazz when I was 14, found the blues when I was 16. I got to experience all those styles and hearing and playing them, created my own style.’’
In his early years as a session man he could be called on to play on everything from Partridge Family albums to Barbra Streisand. From 1971 to 1976 he was a member of band The Crusaders, formerly The Jazz Crusaders, and he performed on 13 of their albums before launching his solo career in 1978.
“By the mid-’70s I’d been doing sessions for at least four years. People started calling to ask me to play like Larry Carlton, they didn’t expect me to play like someone else. In the beginning they might say, ‘Can you sound kind of like this record?’ but by the time I was recording with people like Joni I was allowed to create just what I heard. That’s what made it so much fun.’’
Steely Dan’s Walter Becker said: “If Royal Scam is the definitive Steely Dan guitar album, Larry is the reason.’’ Larry Carlton plays The Tivoli, Brisbane, tomorrow night.
Larry Carlton with his 1968 Gibson guitar.